The Nation Sunday Print Edition - page 4

After weeks of speculation, the
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) left the
government this week announcing that
they would function as an independent
group in Parliament. Cabinet minister
Champika Ranawaka and Provincial
minister Udaya Gammanpila also re-
signed their portfolios. The decision was
meant to put an end to much political
intrigue where many felt that the JHU
would, in fact, not leave the government
even though they threatened to do so.
The issue is now confounded by the par-
ty saying that it was still open to discus-
sions with the government regarding its
future political plans.
The JHU, however, made it clear that
although it had withdrawn from the
government, it had made no decision
regarding supporting an opposition can-
didate or whether it would field its own
candidate. That would depend largely on
who that candidate would be and how
aligned that candidate is to the party’s
policies. Each of the ‘common’ candi-
dates who have been speculated upon in
the media have their pros and cons and
while the JHU would be quite comfort-
able supporting, for example, Madulu-
wave Sobhitha Thera or Karu Jayasur-
iya, it wouldn’t so readily endorse Ranil
Wickremesinghe’s candidacy.
Sections of the JHU, including the
ministers who resigned, were relatively
moderate in their views but parliamen-
tarian Athuraliye Rathana Thera, the
live wire behind the ‘Pivithuru Hetak’
movement, was insistent that if the
party’s demands for constitutional re-
forms were not met, it should leave the
government. The UPFA was willing to
accommodate most of the JHU demands
and provide undertakings that constitu-
tional changes could be effected within
a specified time frame but maintained
that this could not be done prior to the
presidential elections. That was the
stumbling block in the negotiations.
Minister for Economic Development
Basil Rajapaksa, reputed as the politi-
cal troubleshooter of the ruling party,
has now been entrusted with the task of
salvaging the relationship with the JHU.
Five previous rounds of discussions the
minister had with the party ended in an
impasse. The JHU leaving the UPFA is
significant not because the party, which
evolved from its more nationalist fore-
runner, the Sihala Urumaya, commands
a hefty vote bank. It doesn’t. However,
the JHU identifies itself with a segment
of the population fromthemajority com-
munity and the majority religion. Also,
the JHU can claim to have conducted it-
self with dignity and decorum in public
office.
Its minister, Champika Ranawaka has
not been accused of corruption even
though he held the ‘lucrative’ portfolio
of Power and Energy once. Indeed it
has been suggested that this was why
his portfolio was changed! Therefore, its
decision could sway a sizeable section of
‘floating’ voters, convincing them that
all is not well with the government and
that it wouldn’t be right to vote for the
UPFA again.
Even if the JHU does not have a solid
voter base, as a ‘clean’ party it could play
a significant role in molding this opin-
ion in the electorate. From a broader po-
litical perspective though, the more rele-
vant question is what the overall impact
of the JHU decision would be. Would it
act as a trigger for other disgruntled ele-
ments within the broad alliance that is
theUPFA- agroupingof eighteenparties
- to come out of the woodwork and take
the plunge into opposition ranks? Other
political parties, such as the Sri Lanka
Muslim Congress are reputed as reluc-
tant partners of the UPFA. They would
be watching the government’s response
to the JHU decision with great interest
before deciding on who they themselves
would alignwith for the upcoming presi-
dential election early next year.
There has been speculation that some
government parliamentarians would
cross over to the opposition in the com-
ing days and months but the reverse is
also true: opposition MPs could also
seize the chance to cross over to the
ruling party, in return for appropriate
rewards in a future UPFA government,
after a general election. Politics - espe-
cially in the manner in which it is prac-
ticed in this country - is more a battle of
strategies than of principles. If the JHU
action precipitates a wave of crossovers
that could provide the opposition, espe-
cially the United National Party (UNP)
with the momentum which they are so
desperately lacking at this stage.
Despite all the pronouncements about
the UPFA’s perceived unpopularity, even
its opponents acknowledge that in terms
of a presidential contest, President Ma-
hinda Rajapaksa is the clear frontrun-
ner. The collective opposition, at the time
of writing, had not announcedwho their
so-called ‘common’ candidate would be.
The JHU is the only party to leave the
ruling coalition in the last nine years. It
has done so, bucking the popular politi-
cal trend of joining the UPFA in return
for cabinet posts and other rewards. It
is a bold move not only because it is an
eye-opener to voters but also because the
JHU’s political future may depend on it.
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THIS IS MY NATION
The hour
of the voter
A
fter weeks of speculation the
Opposition has come up with a
name. A solid one too. Maithripala
Sirisena. It’s a name calculated to
split the major partner of the ruling
coalition, i.e. the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP). Some MPs have already crossed over.
Other defections are on the cards. It is a time of
speculation, of risks and of calculations.
It boils down to ‘winnability’. In an ‘iffy’
situation the risk is naturally greater. The ruling
coalition will not twiddle thumbs. The initial
surprise and, of course, dismay will soon shift to
closing of ranks, damage control and eventually
counter-punch; the last literally as well, if
the antics of a UPFA strong-man in Kalutara
on Friday (immediately after Maithripala
announced his candidacy) are anything to go by.
Already sweet sounding terms such as
good governance, democracy, rule of law,
constitutional change, abolishing of the
executive presidency etc., are sounding hollow
as people unable to contain individual ambition
talk of ‘high posts’ in a post-Mahinda scenario.
Maithripala’s first press conference as candidate
lost a lot of gloss when it became as much a
candidacy announcement as it was a blueprint
regarding Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political
future. It was also, as Dayan Jayatilleka argues
well in an article titled ‘The Sirisena surge and
why Mahinda is still way ahead,’ about Rajitha
Senaratne unrolling his political autobiography
and Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ‘prolonged and
self-justificatory lamentation’.
Early setbacks notwithstanding the coming
weeks will see intense politicking by both parties
and their respective backers because everyone
involved has much to win and a lot of lose. It’s
investment time, clearly. The problem is that
if you just count Parliament, there can only be
224 ministers. People can speculate, of course,
but people must understand that there will be
hundreds of others who will also be calculating.
It is in this context that it makes sense for
politicians at lower levels (provincial councils
for example) to think money instead of position.
The going rate for a provincial councillor is
said to have moved up from Rs 10 million to
Rs 25-35 million. Rest assured, those ‘on offer’
will be going the way of the highest bidder. It
goes without saying that those who are ready to
bribe will not be averse to take bribes in return.
This being the case, we can take the democracy
rhetoric out of the equation. It is not about lofty
ideas. It’s about personal glory. Perks. Frills.
Tidbits. As has always been the case, one might
add.
Those in power will not let go. Those out of
power want it badly. The voter has to choose
between such persons. Track records will
come into play. Personalities too. Friends of
each candidate will be looked at closely. What
is promised will be considered. Gratitude will
come into play. Punishment for wrongs done will
also be factored in. The crimes and virtues of
coalition partners will not be forgotten. There
will be talk of devils, known and unknown.
Some will weigh the virtues of political stability
against the need to correct flawed structures.
‘Doability’ will be assessed. All this in the
coming weeks.
And there will be those who will try to
convince, cajole, trick, intimidate and cheat
the voter. And there will be those who will be
suckered into voting for those who promise the
undeliverable, those who auction non-existing
resources and those who promise heaven over
hell or heaven over a would-be hell as the case
may be.
It is an exciting time, no doubt. All the more
reason to be alert. Politicians, after all, are made
of promises. This is the month of the voter. Let
the voter strive to be a hard purchase.
Kalana Senaratne
I
t had to happen that way, and the
break was only possible with a
serious split within the regime.
The moment had come for mem-
bers of the SLFP to take the
plunge. And when finallyMr.Wasantha
Senanayake, MP, crossed over (the first
member of the brave ‘suicide squad’)
and mentioned that he knew who the
common candidate was, the matter
was settled. It had to be one name; Mai-
thripala Sirisena. And yet it was some-
what remarkable, in this day and age
of unprecedented surveillance, how
the opposition forces kept the regime
guessing, until a couple of hours be-
fore Minister Sirisena left the regime.
The gates are now open; this is set to
be a wonderfully grotesque political
battle. Even the Pope is helpless.
Sirisena-campaign
The challenge posed by Maithripala
Sirisena is going to be a formidable one.
His is unlike the Fonseka-campaign of
2010, for the individuals are two very
different political animals, the former
being a seasoned politician, a man with
a following within the SLFP voters, and
one that all parties, including the UNP,
have no serious problem endorsing as a
‘common’ candidate; especially against
the present regime. In other words,
Fonseka was a man who could have
been easily isolated and that’s what
happened. Not Sirisena. And unlike
Fonseka, Sirisena’s campaign, at the
moment, appears to have what it takes
to sustain the challenge even beyond
the Presidential election on January 8,
2015, in case the latter loses it.
In a sense, his task is a somewhat easy
one; for this election is not about uphold-
ing the ideal moral and ethical values or
presenting candidates who have consis-
tently maintained an anti-government
policy (people today are immune to
such inconsistencies, especially when
they know that such inconsistencies are
replicated even within the regime, and
where they feel that the opponent has to
be defeated). Rather, this election rests
on a more simple idea: of being able to
convince the people that the broader op-
position alliance is well and truly the
less undemocratic, less corrupt, and less
evil alternative to the present regime.
This is largely a consequence of the
regime being perceived as one which
cannot get more corrupt than this. Per-
haps that’s a generous assessment of
the depths we can potentially fall into;
and yet, it is a widespread feeling that
after the war, this regime has messed
it up beyond reform. Given politics is
very much about emotion and what
one feels about the existing regime,
the precise agenda of the opposition
campaign would not be the principal
factor governing the minds of the criti-
cal masses; even though boosting its
appearance with a reformist agenda
becomes somewhat easy when the re-
gime has none. People are going to vote
for the Sirisena-campaign not because
they are confident that the Executive
Presidency is going to be abolished in
100 days. Rather it’s because they are
simply fed up with the present regime,
its corruption, nepotism and absurd
governance. Those credentials will be
more pronounced in the coming days
and weeks, now that the regime faces a
formidable challenge.
But then all is not well, certainly. All al-
liances are immensely problematic ones,
and the Sirisena-campaign is one such.
Firstly, one is almost tempted to state that
the anti-regime campaign is so diverse
and therefore problematic, that President
Rajapaksa does not evenneed a reformist
agenda, but onlyneeds toprint thousands
of copies of Victor Ivan’s writings on for-
mer President Chandrika Bandaranaike
Kumaratunga and Sarath N. Silva, and
distribute them free-of-charge. Secondly,
then, the Sirisena-campaign would need
to ensure that the role of Mrs. Kumara-
tunga needs to be minimal especially in
front of the cameras. Her principal chal-
lenge and contribution to this campaign
would be to show that Mr. Sirisena is not
her puppet.
And yet, the effect of much of this can
be mitigated with the active involve-
ment of the likes of Mr. Patali Champi-
ka Ranawaka, JHU, and the UNP, with
some clear support from Anura Kuma-
ra Dissanayaka/JVP and other critical
forces. That’s a political platformwhich
can be very formidable.
Rise of JHU
This raises a question about the forces
behind the anti-regime campaign.
As was argued some time ago, if there
was any single movement that was go-
ing to boost the anti-regime campaign,
it was going to be the Pivithuru Hetak
movement ledbyVen. AthuruliyeRatha-
na which adopts a clear ‘regime-change’
policy (not a ‘course-correction’ one). In
other words, to break the regime’s mo-
nopoly over the Sinhala-Buddhist vote-
base, a convincing and formidable crack
within the Sinhala-Buddhist ideological
camp was a prerequisite. The UNP, or a
few SLFPers, couldn’t do that.
And for the moment, the JHU has
emerged victorious. During recent
times, it was battling with other Sinha-
la-Buddhist forces such as the BoduBala
Sena (BBS) – which are also entities
nourished by the regime – for suprem-
acy within this Sinhala-Buddhist camp.
Also, it may be that the JHU was getting
distanced from the Prince’s ear. And
with one bold move initiated largely by
Ven. Athuruliye Rathana, the JHU has
been able to regain their position within
the Sinhala-Buddhist camp, and do so by
portraying it as a reformist outfit; even
though ‘reform’ may not be the only mo-
tive behind this entire campaign.
In such a scenario, attacking the JHU
and itsmonks as the regime is seeking to
do today, is going to backfire; not only be-
cause such a policy is going to anger the
broader Sangha community, but also be-
cause of the widespread viewwithin the
Sinhala community that the JHU (espe-
cially Ranawaka) cannot be blamed for
corruption and financial misdeeds. Fur-
thermore, politics is such that it is today
difficult to find anyone, even within the
NGO/civil society community, who will
be openly critical of the JHU or Champi-
ka Ranawaka. That just might say much
about political praxis, but it also says a
lot about the palpable need to defeat the
present regime.
The forgotten Tamils
But there’s always a forgotten other
in these political campaigns, and once
again, it’s the Tamil people. The primary
function expected of them by the South-
ern leadership in this election campaign
would be to ensure an anti-regime vote,
which the Tamil people would ensure
(and that says much about Sri Lankan
regimes too). But apart from that, they
are almost totally neglected as a people
and community; by the regime (for cer-
tain), but also by the anti-regime forces
and movements.
While this is not at all surprising,
the underlying reasons as to why the
Tamil question is not on the agenda
in this campaign, reflects perhaps the
long history, but also the developing
dynamics, of politics. Sri Lanka’s post-
war politics appears to be largely a
struggle between different versions of
Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Its in-
ternal struggle is akin to a high-jump
contest, where every time a group in-
tervenes in political debate, it raises
the ideological bar that much higher.
But this inevitably lowers the ceil-
ing set on devolution. And as is quite
clear today, the new ceiling on devolu-
tion which is gradually solidifying in
the country is: 13th Amendment mi-
nus (13A-). This in turn doesn’t make
standing for 13A progressive; it only
makes standing for something ineffec-
tive appear progressive and reformist.
This is one thing that the Pivithuru
Hetak movement/JHU has master-
fully done with its 19th Amendment
proposal. And there’s broad consensus
on this matter, for not only is this, the
Rajapaksa-regime’s avowed policy, but
it also receives support from the UNP
leadership (with only a few voices of
resistance, such as that of Mangala
Samaraweera, MP, being heard). Given
the current state of affairs, it would be
quite amazing if at least the few con-
ditions set out by the TNA (i.e. demili-
tarization, resettlement and an end to
land grabs) can be accepted and imple-
mented by the anti-regime campaign.
Lights and tunnels
The people of Sri Lanka now have
got their best chance to topple the
regime democratically. Against the
present regime, there’s little reason
why the anti-regime campaign should
not receive the support of the Sinhala
masses. For those equally committed
to the Tamil question and broader
democratization, it will be a vote for
the anti-regime campaign with firmly
held noses. While recent develop-
ments may point to a faint and flick-
ering light at the end of the tunnel
for some, one can only hope it’s not
that of an approaching train. In that
terrible uncertainty, there could be
some hope.
A formidable challenge
JHU action precipitates a wave of crossovers
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